Mapuche -  "people of the land"


We left sunny Pucón and headed an hour north to the city of Temuco to visit a Mapuche community. The Mapuche are Chile's largest indigenous minority, making up about 10% of the population. And, the Araucania region is home to 50% of the Mapuche population. They are the first and only indigenous nation on this continent whose sovereignty was legally recognized, but they have exhausted generations trying to keep it that way.

The disparity between the greater Chilean society and the rural indigenous population is striking. The level of access to income and social resources such as education, medical attention, and employment is drastically different for the indigenous and non-indigenous people of the country. From 1965 to 1973, land reform improved their situation but the military coup in 1973 reversed most of these gains. The restoration of democracy helped return many of their lands through court rulings, but almost all have been effectively overturned by powerful business interests. The small quantity and poor quality of the land available to these families defines, to a large extent, their ability to make a living by farming it. Protests in Temuco are an almost weekly affair as these communities continue to fight for land. We went to Temuco as part of our ambassador role for Visit.org. We visited the Fundación Chol-Chol, a nonprofit, Fair Trade organization that works with 600 rural Mapuche women to offer high quality weavings and textiles made entirely by hand.

Historically, Mapuche artisans have been relegated to a system of ”informal” product sales, meaning selling on city streets and at craft fairs, leaving the artisans in a poor position to generate sales. Buyers in the informal market look to bargain for prices, leaving the women with a fraction of what the product is worth. Just a reminder to all us travelers, quality products made by hand by local artisans shouldn’t be heavily bargained down. It can take weeks or months to make one textile, and families live on the sale of one or two each month.

These textiles provide a source of income to these rural communities and the Chol-Chol Foundation creates a fair trade bridge between the artisans and their consumers. Chol- Chol also provides education and training to give artisans the skills and resources needed to independently manage the production and commerce of their products. Visits like ours provide not only an additional market for the textiles close to their communities, but also raises awareness of the issues faced by the Mapuche people in Chile. Tour proceeds support the foundation’s women’s programs and work to create a sustainable economy for Mapuche artisans.

We spent the day with Jack, a volunteer from the U.K., Juan Manuel and Zenobia, both Mapuche. We sat and talked with them for a few hours and shared a meal prepared by the local women. Juan Manuel had been working and living in France for years but started to suffer from some serious skin conditions. He felt his ancestral land was calling him back, and when he returned to Temuco his medical problems went away. He told us another story of a woman who had a variety of medical problems that went also away as soon as she returned to her Mapuche family’s land. These are people of the land. When the land calls you back, he told us, you must go. Zenobia has been on this land for generations and her grandmother was the spiritual leader of this community (Women have fulfilled important roles in indigenous religious life and in passing on cultural identity. Women serve as community spiritual leaders, called “Machis” if they are connected to the Gods of life or “Kalkus” if connected to the Gods of death).

Zenobia showed us around a traditional Ruca, a communal building used by all of the local families. She explained the various symbols, still used today, in the textiles that refer to ancient images of cosmological beliefs and relay traditional stories.

Traditional Ruca - a community gathering place made of local materials from the land.

After lunch, we wandered the property to see the different plants used to make the dyes for the textiles. The textiles are beautiful - throw rugs, wall hangings, bags, shawls – everything made by hand. The weaving here is a completely sustainable enterprise, as it uses only replenishable materials. Women create their own looms using trees native to the Araucania region, spin yarn by hand, and use 100% natural dyes created with local vegetation including grass, bark, flowers, and vegetables. Zenobia showed us all the various plants the women use to make the dyes. They take the wool and boil it with whatever plant they want for the color so the wool is entirely naturally dyed. "For black or dark brown", she told us, "we use the wet earth".

Juan Manuel prepared us each a small mate. The Mapuche also love the mate. John and I never acquired a taste for it. The smell, and the taste, remind me of hamster.

Macadamia Nut, berry, bark, earth, and leaves are all colors found in the Mapuche textiles.

Monkey Puzzle tree, sacred to the Macpuche.

One small throw rug can take up to a month to complete. Now they only sell in Chile and a few places in Germany. Juan Manuel and I talked about possibly making some connections in the U.S. for their textiles so I promised to follow up with him in the future. Working to connect these lovely women to a broader market would be a privilege.

In the afternoon, we had a demonstration on the weaving technique, which was much harder than it looked. Poor Zenobia tried and tried to show us how to work the loom, but we were terrible. The sticks kept falling out and I got the strings all tangled. Zenobia just laughed and laughed.

At the end of the day we made a stop in the gift shop and bought two small rugs to take home. It was the first time we felt we could really purchase anything big to take home since the trip was almost over and we could spare the room in the camper. That too was bitter sweet, but having something this beautiful in our home when we get back will be a special reminder of our time here.

It was late afternoon by the time we left the Foundation. We had such a great day and felt a little more connected to the history and culture of Chile. We hugged everyone and promised to stay in touch. The strong and mighty Mapuche are an intricate part of this country, and I encourage all visitors to spend time with them understanding their story and supporting their traditions.

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